Dems Running Political Marathon in Iowa

This weekend, presidential hopefuls appeared in three forums around Iowa in less than half a day. Farai Chideya speaks with NPR correspondent David Greene about the presidential horse race after a weekend cramped with Democratic debates.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Icy weather and even a hostage crisis didn't keep Democrats running for president out of Iowa this weekend. There were several events in the state. The Sixth Iowa Brown & Black Forum ended today - and Hillary Clinton flew in for that; so did Joe Biden, who arrived late but with a bang.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Presidential Candidate): Let's get something straight here. This is not a zero-sum game. I was offstage, hearing about black and Hispanic. Look, that's what white boys have done a long time, banging people against one another. Let's get this straight. It has nothing to do with black versus Hispanic.

CHIDEYA: Republicans were invited, too, but no one came.

For more, we've got NPR correspondent David Greene. Hi, David.

DAVID GREENE: Hi, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So it was a busy day in Iowa. Why so much traffic at this time?

GREENE: Well it's really getting to caucus time. We've got a month or so left before the caucuses. The polls are showing really tight races. The weather's cold in Iowa. So a lot of these events take place.

You know, these organizations, these groups plan these candidate events. And they're part of the game in Iowa, but also, you know, they give voters a chance to see a lot of the candidates together, ask them questions. And as soon as one or two of the candidates in either party signs up, you see a whole rush of the rest of the candidates. They don't want to be left out. So it's part of the process in caucus time here in this state.

CHIDEYA: So you are at the Brown & Black Forum, that's where Joe Biden made the remarks we just heard. Overall, how did the candidates do on the issues of race?

GREENE: That was quite a moment, when Joe Biden came in. He had driven like seven hours through the ice from Chicago to make the event. He came in in the middle of the event, sat in his chair and, bam, hit the issue of immigration. He has to deal with that. And the question for the candidates at that point was whether Latino immigration and other immigration into the U.S. should be seen as a threat to African-Americans and perhaps to jobs of African-Americans. And Joe Biden basically said that's the kind of division that the whites have always tried to stick into the debate, and that it's really not a zero-sum game. So you heard he spoke very, very strongly about that after some of the candidates had not been so forceful.

The issue of immigration also came up - you know, we had this debate in New York recently over whether the state should offer a type of driver's license to illegal immigrants. And Hillary Clinton kind of struggled with the issue in the beginning. She's now come down against that idea. It came up again here in Iowa over the weekend. She was booed when she talked about that at an earlier forum, when she was talking to voters by phone, and then it comes up again at this debate. So immigration - a big part of it. But race was coming up in other ways as well.

CHIDEYA: One of those ways it came up is around crack cocaine sentencing, where Senator Hillary Clinton broke out from the pack. Everyone else said that because of recent changes in the law, they would be willing to apply those retroactively to people who'd been sentenced for federal crack cocaine crimes. And Senator Hillary Clinton said no. Why do you think she positioned herself that way?

GREENE: Yeah, a lot of the buzz after this debate was how Clinton sort of seemed more conservative than the other candidates onstage. And I think this is the issue that the people were really looking at. This issue of retroactivity - whether if the sentencing guidelines, you know, do change in sentencing for crack cocaine - are made about the same as for powder cocaine conviction; should these people who are in this long prison sentences for selling crack cocaine be let out of prison early. And Hillary Clinton was alone on the stage, saying that she does not think so.

And you get the sense that she is preparing for a possible run as the nominee. You know, the Republicans are sitting there ready to jump on whichever Democrat gets the nomination to accuse them of being soft on crime. This is an issue where they could do that. So I think Hillary Clinton wanted to appear not so soft on crime. But it will be interesting to see whether that position might hurt her with some voters - black voters and others in their own party.

CHIDEYA: It's a little odd to have a Brown & Black Forum in a state that according to the census has over 90 percent non-Hispanic white. But this is one of those issues where you bring it up where you can.

NPR's Michele Norris co-moderated this forum. And at one point, she asks Senator John Edwards whether race had helped or hurt candidates so far. Edwards sidestepped and Michele pushed back.

MICHELE NORRIS: Very quickly, you answered part of that question, but not all of it. We said some senators…

(Soundbite of applause)

NORRIS: …for Senator Barack Obama, for Governor Richardson, that race did not hurt them. Just very quickly, did it help them?

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): I don't know the answer to that question.

NORRIS: Has it helped you?

Mr. EDWARDS: I honestly don't know the answer to that question.

CHIDEYA: So, David, what do you make of this reluctance to dig in on this point?

GREENE: It was a tough moment for Edwards. I mean, to be standing there onstage with three people, you know, one who would be the first Latino president, one who would be the first African-American president, and then also one who would be the first female president to be asked, you know, if race has helped those two candidates. You know, it's - race is a very personal issue, I think, for voters, and how much weight they give to it in one way or another.

You talk to a lot of Iowans, some say they are voting for Barack Obama because he would, you know, change the face of America. A lot of people like Bill Richardson because of his ethnicity. But a lot of people say that they just want the best candidate. So for Edwards to kind of come down one way or the other, I think, is something that might've made his campaign a little nervous.

And just to see how sensitive this has become - at Iowa State University, about 45 minutes north of Des Moines, last week, there was some pretty distasteful literature on signs around campus, calling for people to vote for John Edwards, the white man. It referred to Hillary Clinton in a very derogatory way, used a racist word about Barack Obama. So this is getting to be a sensitive issue and I think Edwards wanted to be very, very careful.

CHIDEYA: You also have a situation where there's a question of what different positions that these candidates occupy bring to the table. And you had Governor Richardson questioning Hillary Clinton.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico; Presidential Candidate): Don't you think that governors make good presidents? And…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Gov. RICHARDSON: I mean, that's a…

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): I also…

Gov. RICHARDSON: But I like to - I'd like to yield the rest of my time to supplement your answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: Well, Bill, I think they also make good vice presidents.

CHIDEYA: Isn't it a fact that governors do have easier time, at least, historically than senators in getting into presidential office.

GREENE: They do. Bill Richardson had a very good point. And I think, you know, he brought that up there with Hillary Clinton, you know, since President Bill Clinton was a former governor. And Hillary Clinton was ready with a response, saying, you know, there are other positions that governors might have. But certainly, governors more recently have been more likely to become president than members of Congress.

It was funny. There were some light moments in this debate after a lot of pretty bitter moments recently in the Democratic race - a lot of attacks, a lot of attacks on Hillary Clinton.

In addition to this sort of funny moment, Barack Obama and John Edwards shared a few minutes on the stage. John Edwards was talking about race and minimum wage being one way to help minorities in the country. He said to Barack Obama, you know, senator, you've spoken about these issues passionately. Our voices together are stronger than when they're separate. And would you stand with me and say that you would support raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour if you were president? Obama said that he would.

So these two candidates are really getting along on the stage. As Hillary Clinton, the other person, the three-way sort of close race with them was standing there watching.

CHIDEYA: Sounds like someone's making nice. David…

GREENE: Sounds like it for one night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: David, thank you so much.

GREENE: My pleasure, Farai.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR correspondent David Greene. Tune in on Wednesday when we speak with NPR's Michele Norris. On Tuesday night, she's co-moderating the NPR Democratic Debate in Iowa.

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